Whose Planet Is It Anyway?

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Melting Down an Autism Stereotype

Three Mile Island
Image: Three Mile Island nuclear power plant

By now, I expect we've all seen plenty of articles, books, and other media depicting the "autistic meltdown," wherein a slight change in routine supposedly triggers some kind of massive brain short-circuit and an instant eruption of violent rage. This image, which a few years ago was found mainly among the haters at FAAAS and other similar bigots, is now being plastered all over the public consciousness by mainstream authors such as Jodi Picoult in her recently released novel House Rules.

The inevitable result is widespread discrimination, of course, when hiring managers and other decision-makers start looking upon autistics as walking nuclear disasters who might explode at any moment. If any other minority group had to contend with a hugely damaging stereotype like this, you can be sure they'd be screaming bloody murder about it. But the autistic community has done very little to oppose it; rather, many of us are continuing to use the word in routine conversation, perhaps trying to redefine it a bit around the edges, but taking for granted that it really does refer to something unique to autistics.

However, there's no scientific evidence to support that belief, no matter how the word might be defined. Nowhere in the diagnostic criteria does anything about "meltdowns" appear. Brain imaging studies have not identified structural differences that would account for them. As far as I know, there haven't even been any research studies—with appropriate controls for the subjects' baseline level of stress and other relevant factors—establishing whether the frequency of "meltdowns" is any different among autistics than among the general population. (If you know of any such studies, please post a link in my comments.) In short, we're talking about a stereotype that is based on nothing more than anecdotal stories.

Of course, I'm not arguing that autistic people don't have unpleasant reactions to stress and overload. Certainly we do. We're only human, after all. But what I'm disputing is the idea that "meltdowns" are something intrinsic to autism, rather than a consequence of what chaoticidealism accurately describes as an "underlying, dangerously-high stress level." What I think happens, in many cases, is that the stress of living in an autistic-unfriendly environment builds up over time; and then the blame for the resulting "meltdowns" ends up being wrongly attributed to some sort of mysterious autistic brain cooties, rather than being placed where it belongs—on the detrimental situation that created the stress.

So let's start recognizing and acting in our own best interest, people. If we want equal opportunity in the schools and workplaces, we're not going to get there by meekly letting ourselves be described in terms that cause school administrators and employers to see every autistic person as a threat to public safety. And if we want accommodations to make our environment more comfortable and reduce our stress levels so that we can be more productive at school and work, we're not going to get those, either, if every time we react badly to a stressful situation it's just presumed to be the way autistic people naturally behave regardless of the circumstances.

Crossposted to Shift Journal.



  • I remember facing this back when my son's diagnosis was changed from "profoundly mentally retarded" to autism. He was in the first grade, so it was about 14 years ago.

    In kindergarden, with the "pmr" diagnosis, absolutely nothing was expected of him as far as achievment. When we changed schools and went in with his new diagnosis, the VERY FIRST thing we were asked was, "how do you want us to handle him when he gets violent?"

    LOL He's the gentlest young man you could ever imagine. I, on the other hand, was ready for a smackdown. ;-)

    By Blogger Attila The Mom, at 9:45 AM  

  • Well said! (And I chuckled at Atilla's smackdown comment.) I kow that I use the term when referring to one of my son's truly spectacular displays...but I am also very quick to identify that there is a CAUSE for the behavior and not "oh, it's just the autism." I consider every single thing he does as a communication. My job ( since he is nonverbal and can't tell me in direct, succint terms) is to figure out what he's trying to communicate.

    Ironically, I find I don't actually *think* about the autism very much; I just focus o the little boy before me.

    By Blogger Niksmom, at 9:50 AM  

  • I just found you and I am liking what I am reading. Bitches are my favorite people! Keep it up!

    By Blogger Page the Mommy Quack, at 2:02 PM  

  • It's so important that we get to a place where we learn to accommodate (ie, to provide with something desired, needed, or suited, according to Webster).

    Over and over in my mind it occurs to me that basically, differences like dyslexia are seen as differences and not mental illnesses, although I'm sure it has not been that way in the past. The Lindamood-Bell and Orton-Gillingham methods of teaching aren't "psychological", to my knowledge, but an attempt to teach in the manner that children learn. I suppose Mr. Arnold could set us straight on this, I do tend to be pollyannish.

    A lot of us oldsters remember Patty Duke playing Helen Keller, which Joey's mom reminded me of today. I don't know the whole story, but I do know when a channel was made to her world,it made sense to her, and she became an icon, where as she might have rotted away in an institution, bad behavior and all. Let's quit blaming the kids and begin blaming our own innabilities. Children can't be expected to teach us if we are trying to mold them into something they aren't. And unless we treat them as human...

    It's not the kids inability to live up to the elders expectations. We have to learn, and when we know, we have to teach.

    By Blogger r.b., at 2:26 PM  

  • I don't know if there have been any studies but I do think that regulation of both external an internal stimulus is difficult for basically all of the autistic people I know. So when they find themselves temporarily unable to continue regulating (something often referred to as a "meltdown") I cut them more slack.

    Everyone is, indeed, subject to occasional overload. If an NT person routinely overloads, however, I am likely to attribute that to a lack of planning an discipline on their part. If an autistic person regularly overloads, I am more likely to see that as a problem that is, to some extend, beyond their control or responsibility.

    I suppose I really should just cut everyone more slack.

    By Blogger VAB, at 4:15 PM  

  • Poetry time:

    "With my left hand held high
    I haul a cloud from heaven
    and hurl my thunder down
    to strike destruction on mine enemies.
    I tread them down that they may dread the majesty of my word
    enfolded in a finer anger"

    Some times what has to be done, has to be done and it gets done, I am not one with the Buddhists who would rein in such passions, for the wrath of ages is upon the unfarthinkers. If I had never got angry I would never have done anything.

    By Blogger The author, at 6:02 PM  

  • NTs do have occasional meltdowns. But they're generally years between, not hours or days like with autistics. I'm pretty sure that it has something to do with the way we process information, and what happens when we have to process too much of it. It's probably related to "shutdown" (that is, becoming unresponsive when overwhelmed), which seems quite as likely especially among females (don't ask me why; maybe it has to do with hormone levels?). I have both shutdowns and meltdowns, in any case.

    One problem with equating meltdown with violence is that meltdowns are generally not violent; and when they are, it's out of desperation, not some kind of weird homicidal urge. The only times my meltdowns ever hurt anybody other than myself was when somebody tried to pin me to the floor... and those injuries, in my personal opinion, were well-deserved. From what I remember of my meltdowns, I don't tend to retain the coordination to do much damage anyway. Last time it happened, I tried to tear up some sheets of paper (long story) and later found that I hadn't even managed to tear them even once.

    By OpenID chaoticidealism, at 7:00 PM  

  • Attila: I don't blame you for wanting to smack 'em!

    Niksmom: If more families would just focus on the child as you do, I think there would be a lot less frustration and stress for everyone involved.

    Page: Thanks, and welcome to my blog!

    rb: That's a very good point about dyslexia being seen as a difference, and how things change over time.

    VAB: I agree with cutting everyone more slack. After all, one can't know exactly why another person gets overloaded.

    Larry: The world would indeed be a dull and stagnant place if nobody ever got angry.

    chaoticidealism: I believe there's as much individual variation with autistics as with other groups of people. Some are always very calm, like Attila's son, while others get overwhelmed and upset easily. There are non-autistics who are extremely volatile and have frequent meltdowns. And yes, I agree that processing too much information is much more likely to make an autistic person unresponsive rather than violent.

    By Blogger abfh, at 8:08 PM  

  • Usually, when I get upset or angry, I just get quiet. Not the "calm before the storm" kind, just quiet. My mind gets "log-jammed", and I don't even move.

    By Blogger Clay, at 11:18 PM  

  • I never had a violent meltdown unless I am hopped up on stimulants.

    My worst meltdowns are usually me sobbing and losing verbal communication ):

    By Blogger Nightstorm, at 12:02 AM  

  • I have not gotten into many meltdowns recently. I have become much more stable since I began high school. Of course I still have my crappy moments. Whenever my mom yells at me, I withdraw from her for a few days and rant to myself about how I want to leave her house.

    I have minor exasperations when walking through a congested corridor and bumping into people. It only gets worse when they apologize for bumping into me. Arg, I hate inter-class traffic! I wish I could get a 2-minute early pass so that I could get the hallway to myself.

    By Blogger Catatab_Tabimount, at 1:27 AM  

  • The Author wrote:

    "If I had never got angry I would never have done anything."

    Anger and curiousity are some of the most motivating emotions for me. Anyone who wants to eliminate anger from human psychology is a complete idiot. We would tolerate anything if we felt no anger.

    It needs to be stated clearly that losing one's composure completely and utterly, which highly stressed autistic people might do at particularly trying times, is not the same thing as becoming violent. You can chuck a spack attack and not hurt anyone. And by the same token, there are non-autistic people out there who can do very evil things to others without blinking an eye. This includes children and adults.

    By Blogger Lili Marlene, at 1:37 AM  

  • @Catatab_Tabimount: I can relate to your feelings with your mom, except that in my case, it's more ongoing. My mom has called me a bitch, slapped me in the face, and won't let me drive or get a job because she says that I am not functional enough for a job. It angers me that I am being judged based on the fact that I am disabled in this way and I'm angry that because I'm a minor, she has the authority to do this and everyone will be on her side.
    About the crowded hallways, I would suggest asking to go to the bathroom just before class ends and take your stuff with you. It's an easy way to get an unofficial free >5 minute pass out of class. ;-)

    By Blogger Sadderbutwisergirl, at 3:37 PM  

  • I have had meltdowns and have not actually hurt people, but, the wall moldings were not so happy with me.

    By Anonymous Reader, at 1:56 PM  

  • Catatab_Tabimount: If you've been officially diagnosed with autism, you have the right to accomodation. Write a letter to your IEP committee about the 2 minute pass and see if they'll write that into the plan. If you need it sooner than that, talk to a trusted adult at the school and see if they have a suggestion on how to implement this.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 5:01 PM  

  • cool

    By Anonymous jon, at 9:17 AM  

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